MA Probation Case Sets Higher Bar for Federal Prosecutions

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The federal appeals court decision this week overturning the high-profile convictions of former Massachusetts Probation Department officials helped carve a new landscape for prosecutors, one that may make U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz a bit more selective in indicting public officials as she finishes out her term, reports the Boston Globe. “The [appeals court] has set the same cautionary tone the U.S. Supreme Court has recently offered, that federal prosecutors should not be trying to make a determination of what is good government or bad government,” said former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, a Republican.

This week’s decision, as well as a June Supreme Court ruling involving influence peddling in Virginia, lambasted prosecutors for attempting to stretch federal laws to criminalize local politics, setting a higher bar for federal prosecutions of actions that are typically regulated at the state level. The two decisions send up cautions to federal prosecutors taking aim at public officials. Ortiz’s office has been investigating whether a state senator used his office for personal gain, and separately has been pursuing wrongdoing by local labor leaders. Ortiz had declared that the probation convictions would put an end to a pay-to-play culture in state government. Monday’s decision overturning those convictions found that federal prosecutors overstepped their authority by trying to use federal laws to criminalize state political affairs, which ought to be regulated at the state level. Tom Kiley, a Boston lawyer, said, “What happens every few years is the U.S. Supreme Court takes a case and says ‘No, you are pushing the envelope too far,’ and what is clear is the [appeals court] in the [probation] case said ‘No, you’re going too far.’ ”

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